Scott Vaughan, What Páll Makes, and Life Without ID

This spring, I’ve had the chance to peek into what life without ID looks like in Canada, interview one of Canada’s most interesting authorities on environmental policy, and produce the most music-centred story I’ve ever done for Terra Informa.

A close-up look of the stone harp.
A close-up look of the stone harp that Páll invented.

First off, the story I made for the many people who asked to hear the recordings I made of artist Páll Guðmundsson while I was in Iceland. This story was a mix of liquid luck and preparation that paid off. If ferry workers hadn’t been striking in south Iceland where we originally wanted to go, our friends at the tourist bureau in Reykjavík would never have recommended we go check out Páll’s rock sculptures in his tiny summer village of Húsafell. Fortunately I had packed my pocket-sized Zoom audio recorder just in case I met someone life changing, whose story I absolutely needed to tell.

Have you ever gone somewhere new and had the feeling that you’ve been there before? Imagine going away on a trip and finding that everything you see reminds you of home: the stores have the same shape and sell the same clothes, the restaurants serve the same sort of food, the people listen to the same kind of music…

What about somewhere embraces its own character and qualities? That’s what I saw in Páll Guðmundsson, an artist whose local and naturally inspired work makes his home feel one-of-a-kind. Listen from about 10:18:

scott vaughan
Scott Vaughan, plus my hand.

Next, my interview with Scott Vaughan, Canada’s former Environment Commissioner and the new President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). IISD just took a big leap forward for themselves, and for aquatic science in Canada, by successfully negotiating to become the new operator of the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario. It’s one of Canada’s most important (and most famous) scientific research facilities.

There, scientists have a unique ability to conduct experiments on entire lake ecosystems — in some cases, their research lasts over decades. The research there has caused major changes in the way we live in Canada: like how acid rain affects freshwater fish, and how phosphates in our detergents can cause algae blooms.

But in 2013, the federal government said it felt the Experimental Lakes Area’s research was no longer necessary, and to be be shut down. That set off a mad scramble from environmental groups, activists, and researchers around the world to find a way to keep it alive.

I got a chance to meet Scott Vaughan at the Zero 2014 sustainability conference in Edmonton to discuss how the year of upheaval will affect the research at the ELA, and what he learned about the federal government’s attitude towards research during his time as Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. We had a frank talk about whether he and the other parliamentary officers who’ve irritated the government ever get together and commiserate, but regrettably I had to cut it out of this Terra Informa story. The rest still makes for a fascinating story, I think. Listen from about 1:28:

Finally, this week I finally got a story out that I’ve had in my head for a long time. Last year, I noticed a flyer up in the Stanley A Milner library in downtown Edmonton, advertising an ID storage service at Boyle Street Community Services. I was intensely curious why anyone would need to have the centre lock their ID away. It led me down a rabbit hole of the frustrations that face seniors, homeless people, the recently-incarcerated, anyone who wasn’t born in Canada, and ultimately, our democracy.

You can check out the story online or on newstands in Vue Weekly.

A Space for Us

A massive boulder is carved into the shape of a contented man with closed eyes. It sits in a field of stone and snow.
One of Páll Guðmundsson’s sculptures outside his studio in Húsafell.

It wasn’t obvious at first. The snap of the wind off the Atlantic, and the sheer scale of the mountains plunging into the sea all around us, didn’t initially suggest that Iceland’s landscape was one that invited people in very much. Our first glimpse of a highway outside of Reykjavik was covered in slush half the way, and it was hard to look out the car window, because the snow in the fields was so bright.

My partner Finn and I were in Iceland last month trekking around snowy peninsulas, saga museums, and glacial creeks. I caught the bug so many of us have, listening to Björk’s music in high school, and then urgently needed to see the land of eruptions and emotional landscapes she sings about.

Maybe the first hint of the vision was how reverently our guide that day talked about the creek we were about to swim in. Called Silfra, it is a small watery crack in an expanding continental fissure between two tectonic plates, and that 4-kilometre long plain grows as fast as your fingernail. Over the centuries, the drift opened up this channel wide enough for groups like us to snorkel in. Before we slapped our snorkels and drysuits on, our guide cautioned us to let the current from the glacial melt push us along, and take time to meditate as we peered down to boulders many metres down through the ghostly blue-green light of what he called “the cathedral”.

Finn in front of the inimitable Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.
Finn in front of the inimitable Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.

Or maybe the first hint was seeing Hallgrímskirkja, the towering Lutheran church that overlooks most of Reykjavik, with its narrow pillars sweeping up to its belfry. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, is said to have been inspired by the shape of the basalt columns left by volcanic eruptions around the island. It certainly became more clear when we swished our fingers around in a hot spring pool that had been built about eight centuries ago. It was hard to deny when we visited a geothermal plant helping deliver Reykjavik’s supply of electricity and steam heat — almost entirely collected from boreholes deep beneath the earth channeling superheated water to the surface.

But it was impossible to ignore when we met an artist named Páll Guðmundsson. Páll was initially described to us as a pretty interesting sculptor who made faces out of rocks. When we drove into his village of Húsafell though, and saw stone cairns in circles along the road leading up to a workshop nestled beneath a grassy hill, we knew it was something more.

A friend of his from a nearby museum called ahead for us and asked Páll if he could show us some of his art. There, in the shadow of icy slopes overlooking farms and broken lava fields, this gentle man in a knit toque opened the doors of his workshop for us, and walked us past his sculptures to a musical instrument I didn’t recognize – because he had built it. On long tables against the walls, he’d laid out rows of narrow stones, some with lichens or charcoal faces. He called it a steinharp (or stone harp), and he told us he found the rocks himself in the mountains and canyons nearby. Then he pulled out two handfuls of mallets and played us Bach, and a composition he wrote himself.

Through the clear, hollow notes of the steinharp and the rocky faces he showed us in the fields outside, I realized I was literally seeing people in a landscape, and seeing their image built out of the land itself. I couldn’t stop saying “Wow,” over and over.

What Páll showed me, and what I saw in that power plant, and in the church columns, was a model of how to imagine a world with space for humans. Many of us live in spaces that say nothing about the land we live on, or its history. If you drive to the outskirts of any urban centre in North America, you’ll see roughly the same drab squares of home improvement and furniture stores. Our finest buildings could be plopped down anywhere (and in Edmonton, they’re often designed for a Californian climate). Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to imagine living like we’re part of the land.

There is a space for us everywhere we are, though. Our homes don’t necessarily have to be made out of handfuls of rocks and lichens from the creek down the street. But we can find ways to carefully observe what’s around us, what we can add to the land to make it better, and how we can reflect our histories in ways that respect the place they play out on.

There are stories to be told about the land here in Alberta. We can live like we’re here for good.